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Movie Review: A Most Wanted Man

AMWM posterA Most Wanted Man takes place in Hamburg, Germany where, as its opening reminds the audience, the lead hijacker of the worst attack on the United States in history funded, coordinated and planned the act of war known as 9/11 while blending into Western culture.

The movie based on John Le Carre’s novel resembles the spy novelist’s bleak The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Richard Burton role. This intricately plotted motion picture is not about 9/11 or the scourge of Islamic terrorism that has engulfed the world, with an emerging caliphate as history professor John Lewis and right-wing talk radio hosts forewarned, despite its thematic teasing. The film is an interesting if unconvincing and unsatisfying take on the workmanlike spy in today’s modern spy state. Does he act on principle? Does he empathtize with the enemy when saddled by his own bureaucracy? Does he bend to them – or does he make them bend to him – or does he have some higher purpose?

Burton covered this territory with similar results. Though its story is enigmatic, its theme is relatively benign. We’re only human, or something like that, and the surveillance-industrial complex is self-perpetuating. Getting there is half the fun, or drag, depending on one’s viewpoint and tolerance for Le Carre’s winding plots, and Hoffman gives his all as a spy named Gunther who doubles as a chain-smoking barfly who may or may not be a closet idealist. In the context of A Most Wanted Man, which of course could refer to several different characters, this means believing that observant Moslems can depart from the path of jihad and come to know peace without blowing people up. The international (does anyone use that word anymore?) and all star cast – Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright – keeps piling characters on to the plot but in a way that makes sense.

Take a Moslem who preaches that Islam is a religion of peace, a shady Moslem illegally immigrating into Germany who’s been tortured in Turkey and Russia, a Moslem safe house with a boxer and his mother, a left-wing lawyer, agnostic banker, traitors, spies and cops and add such tantalizing subplots as whether it’s possible to change the tortured Islamic radical. What you get is a tense thriller with shaving and bathing Moslems, encircling Germans, Americans and other Westerners waiting to maneuver, bait and pounce and two hours of waiting for a bomb to explode, all while wondering who’s on who’s side. By the time the teasing’s over – fueled by gallons of booze, cartons of cigarettes, freighters, backpacks, prayer rugs and mosques – A Most Wanted Man more or less pays the claim with what its main man most wanted.

Don’t expect nonstop excitement, as this is not to be confused with anything featuring Jason Bourne. Hoffman portrays a character that, like Burton’s jaded drunk in need of redemption, is on one long binge toward death, frankly, sucking in nicotine and alcohol and daring reality to take him down, down, down while waging a private war for people to act up. This may be why the picture, which has the courage of its convictions if not exactly the necessary facts in evidence, opens with an image of a single wave bringing up dirt and grime in Germany. A Most Wanted Man will not change the audience’s minds about whether Islam means peace, or whether would-be Mohammed Atta types can be persuaded to turn from faith toward reason, and it’s not entirely designed for that purpose. This is not Hoffman’s best performance (it is too incessant and mannered) but he dominates the picture, takes the lead and follows through to a stunning if not entirely surprising conclusion. The plot boils. Philip Seymour Hoffman keeps firing up along the way.

James Garner: 1928-2014

JGJames Garner, who died on July 19 at the age of 86, was quintessentially modern (in the best sense of the term), masculine and American.

His screen persona was easygoing, strong and resolute, whether portraying a player in TV’s Maverick or opposite the indomitable Doris Day in The Thrill of it All and Move Over, Darling (both 1963). His dark Indian handsomeness perfectly fit heroic, military roles in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily and Garner exuded masculinity without coming off as brooding, tortured or macho like some of his tough guy peers. He conveyed the sense he could knock an adversary out with a single punch while equally portraying a subtle quality that he’d only do so upon his own independent judgment that taking a swing was warranted, was his decision alone and that he would do so almost always as a last resort.

Blending comedy and drama and making it look seamlessly integrated, the Korean War veteran kept his most challenging roles grounded in reality with an intensity rarely seen among actors of his type, caliber and range. In The Children’s Hour, he plays a doctor in love with one of the female teachers accused of lesbianism in Lillian Hellman’s story of friendship and persecution, yet he does so deftly without overwhelming the tale and all while adding depth to every scene. It’s a small, serious and crucial role which delivers an early glimpse at his ability to play men of the mind.

He played off forbidden sexual orientation again in 1972’s They Only Kill Their Masters with June Allyson and fabulously as the object of Julie Andrews’ sexual impersonator’s affections in Victor/Victoria (1982) after returning to television as the title’s reformed criminal character in NBC’s successful crime comedy-drama The Rockford Files. By then, his charisma, dry wit and physical attractiveness were a tonic for troubled times and became popular in the culture, parlaying into an endorsement deal for a commercial series about Polaroid’s cameras featuring Mariette Hartley.

James Garner’s humor was always sharp, not snide. His persona was a bit jaded, not cynical. He was never depraved. His characters were always smart, attuned to reality and ultimately interested in achieving some higher value, whether helping a troubled friend on Rockford or stepping up to help the helpless, as he did in trying to rescue Donald Pleasance’s blind man in The Great Escape, a role which capably demonstrates his skill in combining the qualities of a big and tall friendly U.S. soldier with a modern sensibility to be the non-conformist who is confident to take on a task no one else will dare attempt and to do so with humor, grace and kindness. Garner played some variation of this unique mixture in many dimensional performances; in Grand Prix (1966), Skin Game (1971), Murphy’s Romance (1985), the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope, Space Cowboys (2000), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), and, of course, as Duke in The Notebook (2004). He was like a more modern, enlightened version of Clark Gable or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

James Garner had the movie star looks, charm and larger than life heroism. But he possessed a distinctly American characteristic of wanting to do what’s right even when doing what’s right is not obvious. With his body, eyes and tone of voice, he expressed an attitude of ‘to hell with what others think’ in each climactic scene with just the right degree of Devil-may-care and heroism to make the conflict resolution seem jovial, serious and never without the top value clearly at stake – with the dilemma never taken lightly, unseriously or undertaken as a trivial or reckless gesture. That he acted with an exact balance of ease and self-confidence is why his death is widely impacting people who live in an age when men of action, reason and joie de vivre are especially rare, particularly in pictures.

He wrote his memoirs with Jon Winokur a few years ago (read my review here) and capped off a remarkable career with the equally remarkable story of triumph in his personal life over an evil stepmother who physically, sexually and in all ways abused the Garner children. That James Garner chose to come out and speak up is an honest, strong testament from an amazingly talented and entertaining artist. Now that he is gone, it is perhaps better known that he also embodied the virtues of characters he portrayed. This makes watching his screen performances more rewarding.

May James Garner rest in peace.

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

DOTPOTA posterLike its rebooted predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offers more of the same exciting, escapist fare. These pictures are, like the original 1968-1973 films for 20th Century Fox, designed for mass entertainment. At their best, they provoke thought with thrills.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is more visceral than the 2011 movie. Taking place years after the simian flu spread and wiped out most humans, the apes and their clans have returned to the forest similar to where they once came from when they were brought for experiment by man to civilization. They live amongst the trees, swinging from the start as they did in the first movie, traveling in herds and memorizing slogans that “ape shall not kill ape.” As we see when Dawn commences, civilization has nearly dimmed to nothingness, save for a band of rogue human scientists and adventurers who seek to enlighten what is left of humanity by setting forth into the forest and restarting a great dam built by man.

The apes know nothing of this plan and the first half of Dawn shuttles back and forth between good apes, such as leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and intellectual Maurice (Karin Konoval), and bad apes, such as Koba (Tony Kebbell), and the equivalent good and bad humans. It’s as much a dichotomy between nature and civilization as between ape and human and as the humans are drawn into the woods, the apes are transformed by what remains of San Francisco and various factions face off in relatively predictable ways. Multiple subplots and themes – tribalism versus individualism, primitivism versus civilization, barbarism versus rationality – play out as they did in the previous Fox Apes‘ series (exempting the godawful Mark Wahlberg reboot in 2001, which merits not a single further thought), with nothing especially deep or challenging but enough to think about along racial and class themes and what passes for ethical treatment of animals.

Even the worst humans and apes, such as Koba and a nasty human who smokes – smokers are always portrayed as nasty, aren’t they? – have a point. Humans, led by Keri Russell, Jason Clarke and an idealistic young artist (Kodi Smit-McPhee), earn ape trust while Gary Oldman tends to fortress San Francisco and Koba hasn’t really changed since he first appeared. When the battle begins, it’s easy to see where the collectivism, militarism and power-lust will lead and, as anyone who recalls Charlton Heston’s famous line from the 1968 original can tell, the prospect of man versus ape versus ape versus man dimming the lights to the point of extinction is never far from possible. This new Fox series is exciting and challenging enough to entertain while asking what breaks the ties that bind and bonds the broken ties.

Movie Review: ‘America’ by Dinesh D’Souza

America poster D'SouzaEmphasizing emotions over facts, the propellant and powerful America: Imagine the World Without Her, co-written and co-directed by conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, teems with a proper American sense of life. It is limited in its power, which strongly builds yet quickly dissipates, by what amounts to a faith in individualism. Evoking Ronald Reagan, D’Souza understands what it means to make use of facts and history in words and pictures and there are plenty of each in America. But this independent movie, which strikes a chord in this deeply wounded and crippled nation, is not a recreation of history. It is not a documentary. It is not a philosophical examination of the country for which it is named.

America is pure, potent propaganda. As such, it is relatively well done. Better than Sicko, or most conservative-themed movies, America, which I saw at a screening during the libertarian FreedomFest in Las Vegas, where I had the opportunity to meet Mr. D’Souza, grabs a hold on what’s meaningful about the United States and, in certain stories and segments, portrays an American sensibility. This is not to say everything depicted, with historical portrayals and reenactments, is merely superficial. Much of what’s here is compelling. Some of the tales and excerpts are thought-provoking. Everything is put together. Nevertheless, America amounts to an exercise in “what if…?”

It takes 15 minutes to get going, following a Revolutionary War setup, unmistakably themed to sacrifice, that undercuts the picture’s call to resistance. The five-part movie covers the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War 2 and what narrator D’Souza describes as the restoration, which very much in this perilous time remains to be realized (this is why it’s an emotional film for those who love the country). Beginning with images celebrating the Industrial Revolution, which the film never accounts for, America breaks down the basic case for Barack Obama as an American destroyer. This case is made with emotionally powerful symbols, such as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the White House and Mount Rushmore, being visually erased as the argument against America is made with key interviews from leftist principals – Chomsky, multiculturalists and others – interviewed by D’Souza. Their points are represented, not laid out, and he deals with their points with relative clarity and even-handedness.

D’Souza is not exhaustive, however, and he doesn’t pretend he wants to be. He hasn’t a moment to spare, briskly moving along to relevant facts, points and counterpoints, and the audience will learn about black slaveowners (yes, you read that right), Frederick Douglass meeting Abraham Lincoln, New Left terrorist and college professor Bill Ayers, the selling of Manhattan by Indians, and one exceptional black entrepreneur. As the five-point case against America is made – racism is central – D’Souza convincingly illustrates with his excerpts, facts and visuals that Obama, Elizabeth Warren and other New Leftists seek not to remake America but to unmake America and by the evidence presented here and not presented here, the proposition is undeniable. He does so ploddingly, with a proper and searching tone, stating rightly that “if [Americans'] wealth is stolen [as leftists claim], then we must give it back.” D’Souza is a sincere advocate and he is also persuasive. After Texas Sen. Ted Cruz makes a brief appearance in a segment on the La Raza accusation that the U.S. seized Mexico’s territory, D’Souza asks “how many people in Mexico today wish the U.S. had kept all of Mexico?”

The “what if…?” theme plays across America, underpinning the entire experience, which is compiled of solid stories about great Americans such as Douglass, Lincoln and General George Washington among others, portrayed in bits by poorly cast actors who recreate certain excellent moments in U.S. history that counter leftist dogma time and again and build to a strong case for U.S. moral superiority, though D’Souza does not and would not put it that way. He relies instead on the conservative, which is to say Judeo-Christian, ethic that America is good because she helps others. Citing U.S. sacrifice in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany, he correctly demonstrates that the U.S. acted in self-sacrifice, not self-interest, in each major war. He will not even cite as a side effect that the U.S. gained from any military action; we sacrifice property, oil and lives for the sake of others. Of course, this plays right into the leftists’ agenda, but D’Souza soldiers on in defense of capitalism – presumably because that, too, helps others – making a strong and effective and, exploiting his own ethnic origins in India, humorous case. The argument for the freedom that brought the industrial revolution is always mixed with selflessness, whether praised by Bono or faith-based Star Parker; by America‘s reckoning, capitalism only exists at the mercy of serving God (says Star Parker) and helping others.

But capitalism is good, D’Souza argues, with Bono making the most powerful speech – “wealth in the U.S. is not stolen – it’s created” – and he explains his case in everything from hamburgers to the iPhone. America assails ObamaCare, which is correctly accused of achieving what D’Souza calls a “masterful distortion and extortion” against the nation which gives the impression that Obama’s for us against insurance companies when, in fact, as the fascist scheme necessitates, ObamaCare is for crony insurers against us. That he cashes in by tracing ObamaCare’s origins to radical leftist Saul Alinsky, who influenced both Obama and would-be president Hillary Clinton, is mitigated only by his glossing over the fact that she was drawn into her leftist dogma by a Christian minister. America is thus enlightening, with fresh, relevant facts and a few surprising stings against the NSA and, by implication, conservatives who oppose whistleblower Edward Snowden, ending with a sweeping, tense and emotional roundup to assure the audience that the opponent of Obama who loves America for being good is not alone.

What constitutes the good, especially in an anti-Obama, anti-New Left propaganda picture featuring O.J. Simpson‘s lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, is left undefined or, worse, in service of the New Left’s moral premises. But this will not stop America from igniting passion for Americanism and making decent Americans feel good and that’s not nothing, which is what we get from the Nothing Man. Dinesh D’Souza has made a movie that makes good points for the U.S. and ends with images of Jesse Owens and Elvis Presley and this indicates that he gets what’s great about America, to paraphrase his hero, Ronald Reagan. But he does not define or explain America’s essential principles – not once does his America name individual rights or individualism as the nation’s founding ideal – and this keeps the movie firmly in the feel-good camp; no more, no less.


Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged, Part 3

ASP3WIJG posterAs I previewed last month, the new and final part of libertarian businessman John Aglialoro’s independent movie trilogy adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, features Christian libertarian ex-congressman Ron Paul of Texas. It’s a plot point that, however small, makes no dramatic sense. Like much of this movie, easily the worst of the three pictures, Ron Paul’s cameo both distracts from whatever remains of Rand’s philosophical theme and distorts the meaning of Atlas Shrugged.

Introduced by John Stossel, screened at this year’s libertarian FreedomFest in Las Vegas and opening in theaters nationwide this September, the film, Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?, fundamentally changes Rand’s plot (stop reading this if you insist on seeing movies without any essential plot knowledge).

I’ll get right to the fact that Atlas Shrugged 3 gives Rand’s brilliant story a happy and, even on its terms, undeserved ending. With an awful cast (the emaciated actress playing Dagny this time misinterprets the character’s rationality as a blank slate) and forementioned transgressions peppered throughout the 90-plus minute picture, the movie pastes a news montage and begins in earnest with a poorly staged adaptation of the 20th Century Motor Company scene. Everyone looks like an actor and the extras overemote. They’re not alone. John Galt is portrayed by an actor who means well but is apparently directed to come off as a soap or soft core porn star. “This is John Galt speaking…” should be delivered with a blended sense of heart-skipping dread and anticipation, both crashing down and cashing in on the events preceding the great, momentous line. Here, it plays as a self-conscious voiceover. This is Galt as studmuffin, not as the man who invents – and stops – the motor of the world.

As depicted, Galt’s Gulch could double for a Hallmark Christmas movie, complete with luminaria, and Francisco d’Anconia, who is supposed to have grown up with Dagny, is played by an actor who appears to be old enough to be her grandfather. At least he projects competence. This Dagny is so vacuous she couldn’t run a rinse cycle let alone a transcontinental railroad. When she awakens after Part 2s plane crash in the Valley, the face with no fear, no pain and no guilt achingly portrayed in Rand’s poetic scene is nowhere to be found. Neither is Ayn Rand’s crucial line about never needing to take any of it seriously. There are only actors who resemble the Marlboro man (Ellis Wyatt), male model types in neatly trimmed facial hair (Ragnar) and Foster Grants (Galt) and lots of bugs around Hugh Akston. Somehow, Taggart Transcontinental, the best thing about Part 1, became the equivalent of a commuter rail line. Forget about making love on the train tracks, too.

It gets worse. With chants of “We Want Galt!” from the American public, the opposite of Rand’s point in the novel, which dramatized that the reader faces a fundamental philosophical choice, and cameos from Fox News personalities, Bitcoin and Glenn Beck, the central thesis that the power of the West is fading in proportion to enslavement of the man of ability is utterly trashed. In its place, without a single reference to altruism or self-sacrifice (on the contrary, Dagny silently sanctions sacrifice) is a bastardization (that is the word for this movie) of Atlas Shrugged as populism. With Eddie Willers saved, dispensing with another key point from the novel about what happens in such a collapse, and Cherryl’s life cruelly tossed aside as an afterthought – betraying what Rand’s philosophy holds as the ultimate value – the theme here is that libertarianism will save the world. Among the glaring inconsistencies and inversions are Dagny’s ever-changing hair from straight to permanent wave and back, clean-shaven villains and facial-haired heroes and, worst of all, Galt’s agonizing torture minimized in every sense; the counterpoint to Christ on the cross is reduced to a carefully posed and partially clothed actor making faces to special effects.

That it’s all dramatized in the style of a flat, boring cable movie where nodding off makes not a lick of difference seems to fit what has turned out to be an ill-conceived undertaking by a businessman who does not understand the novel. The proof of this comes straight from the businessman’s mouth. As Aglialoro told the premiere audience, he made this trilogy to “save America from government.” Herein lies the libertarian’s anti-intellectual error across the decades. Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged (and Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism) do not in any sense seek to save America from government. Atlas Shrugged dramatizes the heroic tale of a life lived large and, to the extent it’s about the collapse of the West, it’s about saving America from government control. Atlas Shrugged Part 3, as part of the libertarian’s counterfeit claim to Rand’s philosophy, totally fails to check its premises.